The Cleveland Browns have one of the youngest rosters in the NFL, with first and second-year players performing high-profile and often starting roles for the team this season. Considering we're heading into Week 15, it seems like the perfect time to check in with the Browns' 2012 rookie class and see how those who have contributed this season have fared.
Knee surgery in the preseason and a rib injury in October has limited running back Trent Richardson's effectiveness in his rookie year, but not as much as those ailments would another back. Richardson has proved himself quite tough despite playing at less than 100 percent this season, making would-be tacklers miss 34 times and putting up 512 yards after initial contact.
Though he hasn't single-handedly turned around the Browns run game as was expected (Cleveland ranks 24th in rushing yards per game, with 100.5), he's nonetheless been incredibly valuable, with his ability to extend drives and make plays, making him a decided upgrade over last year's No. 1 back, Peyton Hillis. He's also breathed new life into the career of Montario Hardesty, who can finally stay healthy without having to shoulder a heavy workload.
Regardless of what happens to Cleveland's coaching staff in the offseason, Richardson is poised to remain the centerpiece of their offensive plans. If he can get back to full health and stay that way, he'll be incredibly dangerous next season.
There is no more polarizing a figure on the Browns roster at present than starting quarterback Brandon Weeden. The now-29-year-old is either loathed or loved by the Cleveland faithful, often simply because of their feelings about his backup Colt McCoy rather than because of what he's done (or not done) on the field.
It's been a mixed bag for the rookie, as is to be expected for any first-year quarterback (yes, including Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, who aren't flawless), especially one who must take the helm of an offense entirely dissimilar to the one he conducted in college. He's completed 57 percent of his passes—264 of his 463 attempts—for 3,037 yards, 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, and only 32.7 percent of his 52 attempts of 20 or more yards.
Interceptions and sacks—of which he's taken 24—have been an issue for him this season, and the result is him finding ways to both get the ball out more quickly and to throw it away rather than trying to force risky plays. As such, his 23 thrown-away passes are the third-most in the league, but they actually represent progress even if it isn't a desirable number.
Quarterbacks are only as good as the receivers they throw to, and the slow start for Cleveland's receiving corps also helped contribute to Weeden's early-season struggles. With the emergence of Josh Gordon and the weekly improvements in Greg Little's game, Weeden has found somewhat of a rhythm in recent weeks, but he's still a little erratic—he's thrown for less than 200 yards in three of his last six games, for example.
Weeden's future isn't set in stone. Any changes in the coaching staff or front office could mean the Browns yet again look for another solution to their quarterback problems; however, another year of Weeden under center would be a far better situation than any other they could attempt.
There's no reason to turn back on Weeden after just one season in the league—continuity at the position should be Cleveland's ultimate goal, and with an offense as inexperienced as the Browns' is, it is going to take time for things to reach their ceiling. If there's no progress seen after his sophomore season, then it may be time to look elsewhere, but no sooner.
We're not hearing rookie right tackle Mitchell Schwartz's name come up all that often this season, and considering his position, that's a very good thing. The Browns desperately needed a plug-and-play right tackle in this year's draft, and they made a smart decision to get him as quickly as possible—in the second round, where starters are found.
Of the 72 offensive tackles ranked by Pro Football Focus, Schwartz ranks 27th, with the only rookie ranking higher being first-round pick Matt Kalil. The only thing that appears to be first-year about Schwartz is that he's in his first year. He's allowed only three sacks so far this season, as well as nine quarterback hits and 17 hurries. The only weakness in his game is run blocking.
Schwartz seems to give every indication that he'll hold onto his job for a long time and could in fact be a Brown for the duration of his career. With Joe Thomas at left tackle and Schwartz at the right, Cleveland's pass protection should be excellent for many seasons ahead.
John Hughes is a situational pass rushing defensive tackle who also assists in run defense. Of his 436 total snaps, 193 have been to defend the run, 239 in pass rush and a mere four in coverage. Though he's drawn the start twice this year, he's mainly been used in specific down-and-distance situations, playing one-half to one-third of all snaps.
He's been fairly serviceable in his limited role, with three sacks and six hurries, 19 solo tackles, five assists and 15 total defensive stops. It's possible that Hughes could eventually be an every-down starter—better production against the run would do a lot to help his snap count next season.
Receiver Travis Benjamin may not have played many snaps this season, but he has appeared in nearly every game thus far, either as a receiver, a returner or both. The vast majority of his snaps have come in passing downs, though he has played 52 in a run-blocking capacity.
As a receiver, Benjamin is still a work-in-progress, catching just 10 of the 24 passes thrown his way. However, when he does come down with the ball, he's a major threat, with his speed leading to him averaging 14 yards per reception. He has 140 receiving yards through 14 weeks with one touchdown, and he's also been used as a trick-play rusher, with six carries for 66 yards.
Benjamin has emerged as a useful punt returner, with three totaling 149 yards and a touchdown. That scoring play—a 93-yarder last Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs—is the longest Browns punt return for a touchdown in franchise history, winning him AFC Special Teams Player of the Week as a result.
Thanks to season-ending injuries suffered by Browns linebackers Chris Gocong and Scott Fujita, fourth-round rookie James-Michael Johnson has been a starter in seven games this season and appeared in eight. So far, the experiment is going well.
Johnson was brought on to help Cleveland's struggling run defense, and as such, the great majority of his 252 snaps have been played against the run. He's done well in this capacity, with 19 solo tackles, two assists and 12 total stops; he's also notched three quarterback hurries.
Though Johnson is the starter, he doesn't play every snap—he plays approximately half—and is rotated in and out situationally with Craig Robertson, who is more of a coverage linebacker. Expect Johnson's role to continue in this capacity. If he can improve his coverage skills, then the starting job could be his, full-time, next year.
Initially brought in as an offensive guard, Ryan Miller currently sits on the Browns' depth chart behind Mitchell Schwartz at tackle. With Schwartz and Joe Thomas holding things down at tackle (and Shaun Lauvao and John Greco at guard), Miller hasn't been needed this year. He's on the active roster, but hasn't played a snap. His time could come in the future, but for now, he's depth.
Linebacker Emmanuel Acho was injured in the team's second preseason game in the summer and was placed on injured reserve. The official reason for the sixth-round pick going on IR is undisclosed.
Defensive tackle Billy Winn might be Cleveland's biggest steal of the draft. He's appeared as a starter at both right and left defensive tackle and has played a total of 608 snaps on the season, 172 more than John Hughes, who was drafted three rounds earlier.
Of those 608 snaps, Winn has played 374 as a pass-rusher, 216 as a run defender and 18 in coverage, and totaling 62.5 percent of all Cleveland defensive snaps. He has one sack, 11 quarterback hurries, five hits, 15 solo tackles and five assists and 11 total defensive stops.
After drafting both Hughes and Winn, the Browns have significant talent and depth on the defensive line. The addition of a strong pass-rushing defensive end this offseason will round everything out.
Trevin Wade has played as a slot or nickel cornerback (and sometimes dime) this season, filling in whenever injuries (or suspensions) have required adjustments in Cleveland's secondary. He's played just 128 defensive snaps this season, with the most work coming in Week 11, when he was on the field for 66 of a total 91 snaps.
Of the six times he's been thrown to this season, five of the passes were caught for a total of 108 yards and two touchdowns. He's raw and still has work to do if he's going to ever be a starter in Cleveland, and he'll need better special teams contributions while he waits—he has just four special teams tackles and has only been used in that capacity in four games.
Fullback/tight end Brad Smelley has spent all of the season on Cleveland's practice squad, though he may get a shot to prove himself this Sunday against the Washington Redskins. The seventh-round pick was promoted to the active roster on Monday, and he should serve as a blocker in the run game and a potential passing target as well.
The supplemental draft pickup of wide receiver Josh Gordon seemed to be a bit of a questionable decision at the time it was made, with Gordon having spent the entire 2011 season off of the college football field. Visions of Greg Little's rookie season danced in the heads of the doubters, and with good reason—there had to be some rust for Gordon and the worry was that he wouldn't be able to shake it off in his rookie season.
Though Gordon started slowly, playing a third to a half of all offensive snaps, his progress both in practice and on the field earned him more playing time, and what he did with it ultimately morphed him into the starter he is today.
So far, Gordon has been targeted 72 times and has 42 receptions for 732 yards, 288 yards after the catch and five touchdowns. His 17.4 yards per reception rank him fifth in the league—clearly, Gordon is Cleveland's deep-threat receiver, and their ability to stretch the field with him has made the entire offense better.
Gordon is a puzzle piece the Browns were sorely missing, and they made a savvy move to pick him up when they did. This offense would be far different had they not made the move.